Study shows higher cancer rate among Holocaust survivors
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Study shows higher cancer rate among Holocaust survivors

Research by Sheba Medical Center indicates severe trauma has consequences decades later

The former inmates who were transported by train from Bergen-Belsen were photographed in Farsleben, Germany, shortly after their liberation by US troops on Apr. 13, 1945. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of George Gross)
The former inmates who were transported by train from Bergen-Belsen were photographed in Farsleben, Germany, shortly after their liberation by US troops on Apr. 13, 1945. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of George Gross)

The extreme trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors has severe implications on their health even tens of years later, with an Israeli study finding that they were far more likely to get certain forms of cancer.

The study, which was published earlier this month by the American Cancer Society’s Cancer journal, examined 152,622 Holocaust survivors over the course of 45 years in Israel. It compared cancer rates among those who were entitled to compensation for their experiences versus those who were not, as well as those who were from countries ruled by the Nazis and those who were not.

Generally those who were entitled to compensation suffered the worst persecution under the Nazis, surviving death camps, concentration camps and ghettos.

The Ramat Gan Sheba Medical Center’s Siegal Sadetzki, who led the the research team, said she carried out the study in order to determine if conditions experienced by Holocaust survivors — such as lack of food, overcrowding, disease and immense stress — impacted their chances of developing cancer.

A group of concentration camp prisoners who were liberated on a death march from Dachau sit on a bench waiting to receive food from Japanese-American soldiers with the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion. (Courtesy USHMM/Eric Saul)
A group of concentration camp prisoners who were liberated on a death march from Dachau sit on a bench waiting to receive food from Japanese-American soldiers with the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion. (Courtesy USHMM/Eric Saul)

“The data emphasize the importance of learning about the combined effect of several exposures occurring intensely and contemporaneously on cancer risk, such as those that unfortunately occurred during World War II,” Sadetzki said, adding that “such inspection cannot be conducted by experimental studies and could only be evaluated by using observational epidemiological surveys.”

Based on this criteria, the study found that 22 percent of those who received compensation developed cancer, compared to 16% of those who did not. Additionally, those who were awarded compensation had a 12% higher chance of having colon cancer and a 37% higher chance of having lung cancer.

The study also found that those born in countries occupied by the Nazis had a eight percent higher risk of developing cancer than those who were not, as well a eight percent higher risk of colon cancer and a 12% higher risk of lung cancer.

A British social worker treats survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp soon after liberation (Imperial War Museum)
A British social worker treats survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp soon after liberation (Imperial War Museum)

The studies findings did not show any higher risk of breast or gynecologic cancer for female Holocaust survivors compared to the general population.

While the study’s authors said their research indicated that survivors have a higher chance of developing cancer, there is not yet enough information about the matter to make a definitive conclusion.

The research team also noted that there may be a parallels between cancer rates of Holocaust survivors and the rates in other groups who have experienced severe social deprivation.

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